Why countries do not understand Africa – and need to

There is no doubt that much has been said, written, filmed, photographed or otherwise recorded about Africa. It is a continent of mystery, of sorrow, of immense potential and no small amount of misunderstanding. Especially misunderstanding. It’s billion or so people are amongst the poorest on the face of the planet. Its resources are amongst the most abused in the world and its culture and its knowledge is vastly, vastly underrated by all.

New Zealand is no exception unfortunately to this systemic non-understanding of a continent that could teach the entire western civilization a thing or four about humility. From our reception of people from African nations in society in day to day situations such as walking down the street, right up to the corridors of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade there is much we could learn. New Zealand has the means and the know how to learn. We improved our standing with African nations when we protested in the streets against the Springbok Tour in 1981, yet at the same time we have turned a blind eye/deaf ear to tin pot dictators and corrupt governments such as that in Nigeria who either cannot or will not look after their people.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the world underrating Africa actually came in a movie about the Rwandan genocide where Don Cheadle is playing a hotelier who opens his hotel to refugees from the massacres taking place. He is Hutu but his wife is Tutsi. In particularly powerful scene the Canadian army officer in charge of the United Nations peace keepers is explaining his reasoning for the world not caring about the genocidal work of the militia’s and ends with this line: “You’re not even black. You’re African!”.

Nasty. But true. And we see it again in more recent circumstances as Boko Haram terrorize Nigeria and neighbouring countries. The world goes through the dinner time motions of “oh, that’s terrible”, and then go back to eating their dinner. Yet, if this had been in somewhere like Southeast Asia the outrage would have been palpable. Governments would have acted. And whilst I was pleased to get a response from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Murray McCully saying New Zealand had in place measures that made it a crime to be in any way supporting Boko Haram, the complete silence emanating from countries all over the world when hundreds of innocent school girls were kidnapped, including New Zealand told me that few cared a jot.

We wonder why these nations are messed up. Yet we do not bother to look at the history of the colonial powers that occupied the continent – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain – to name the key ones and how they treated the people. One salient point to remember is that Western Africa was part of the slave triangle also involving the southern United States and the Caribbean. Another is that the colonial powers had little regard for ethnic groups and often did racially biased “experiments” such as noting the shape and size of facial features of different groups and giving preference to those they liked better. They confiscated land, killed endangered species and trashed the culture of indigenous groups. And then in the aftermath of World War 2, preoccupied with rebuilding themselves they abandoned their colonies to their fate, causing revolution, civil wars and all sorts of violent acts to occur as these new born nations tried to reconcile with their past.

There are some major gains to be had from recognizing the massive wrong we are perpetuating by ignoring these nations issues and not helping them to build the legal, education and health systems that will help them grow. Turning a blind eye to the grief mining, logging and oil companies are causing Africa, is to commit a massive injustice. It helps to sow the distrust of western civilization, western ways, western culture when Africans see that they are being brutalized by these companies for as little as a dollar a day, whose headquarters are in places like London and New York. Case in point: Shell Oil in Nigeria. If left to smoulder, militant groups bent on attacking perceived western targets such as oil refineries so forth are formed. In part this is probably how Boko Haram formed.

We say we want to defeat Boko Haram. But we don’t want to understand how and why it formed. Until we do we will never defeat it. Until we understand Africa better, we will never understand how and why of Boko Haram.

So, perhaps we had better start treating Africa and her billion or so inhabitants with some decency. Too much to ask?

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